Talking Back

Patricia Keeney*

The Land Acknowledgement. Written and performed by Cliff Cardinal. Directed by Chris Abraham. Produced in Toronto by Crow’s Theatre (2021) and Mirvish Productions (2023).

In Canada, the US and many other “woke” countries, we have become all too familiar with land acknowledgements, speeches preceding public events of every kind, to acknowledge that we in the twenty-first century are standing on the territory of Indigenous peoples who lived in this place before us and whose descendants still share it with us.

But what about a land acknowledgement as a one-man show of 90 minutes delivered by an Indigenous actor and a playwright, a land acknowledgement with attitude, one that is funny, nasty, trenchant, mocking and angry?

Cliff Cardinal and director Chris Abraham of Toronto’s innovative Crow’s Theatre—where the piece originated in 2021—create a rich take on these public land acknowledgements that are fast becoming almost perfunctory and meaningless. The show recently sold out under the auspices of Toronto’s commercial Mirvish Productions in the CAA Theatre, its largest venue to date.

Indigenous actor and playwright Chris Cardinal grins with insults, killing us kindly. Photo: Dahlia Katz

Onstage, in front of a bright red curtain, Cardinal is mercurial, a puckish presence smiling fraternally, while zinging deadly one-liners at his audience. He prances and gesticulates through raucous anecdotes. He eyeballs the crowd, grins with insults, killing us kindly. Irresistibly, he draws us into a confessional and accusatory conversation. Indeed, we all know what this is about. No one is innocent here.

Laughing at himself, at us and with us, he speaks of the standard land acknowledgements, delivered by “the head of a multi-million-dollar institution. . . with this far-off look in his eye like he’s the last safe house on the Underground Railroad.” What do these endless acknowledgements accomplish, he asks, other than white self-congratulations? Cardinal jauntily concedes that we’re spreading awareness like excess suntan lotion.

He is hard on stereotypes, both Indigenous and White especially those around the environment: “I don’t think our ancestors were concerned. . . [about] living in equilibrium with nature,” he says. “When Crazy Horse drove hundreds of bison over the face of a cliff. . . was it really to regulate CO2 emissions?” Hardly! “We’ll see movement on climate change when forest fires rip though mansions,” he grins, ripping through assumptions of money and privilege about white people.

His biting humour is leavened by the genuinely poetic. He speaks of how Indigenous people are truly linked to the environmental movement, how their stories and their history live in the land, in a wild blueberry patch or an old mine where somebody died or the spot where “we got a moose one year when we needed one.” These places pull stories out of his people who revisit them. If the land is lost, he tells us passionately, so is our history. That’s what he really wants acknowledged.

Chris Cardinal’s constant pacing back and forth across the stage is flip and funny and sarcastic. Photo: Dahlia Katz

There are moments that feel unfair. Like an accusation that the wealthy and privileged non-Indigenes of his country have not worked as hard as his strawberry-picking, beaver-hide-tanning ancestors. But this imbalance is nothing compared to the abuse his people have suffered at the hands of “settlers,” a term Cardinal rejects because it sugar-coats racism. He scrutinizes language constantly, inviting his audience to be a “friend” not an “ally” because “ally” sounds “like you’re fighting the Nazis in World War II. And you’re not. You’re fighting for Likes on Facebook.”

Tongue planted firmly in cheek, he tests the team spirit of his audience. A show of hands please if you know the names of any Indigenous activists, authors, filmmakers, musicians. Audience response satisfies him enough that he won’t ‘cancel’ us. Yet.

Cardinal is touchy about Indigenous people doing land acknowledgements because he hates the idea of publicly declaring victimhood. He shares a secret with us. “Land acknowledgements didn’t begin as left-wing academic sloganeering. They began as whispers around the kitchen table in the seventies. . . as a dare.”

Then he gets even more conspiratorial. “What if we told them. . . walked right into their house. Said it, right to their face: all this shit. . . You stole it. . . Your family lied, cheated, extorted, stole, and laughed.”

Ironic and compassionate, he attempts to mollify his audience. History has been unkind to us all. The Irish. The Jews. The Irish Jews. And a list of peoples from Palestinians to Rohingya Muslims. But history has not been unkind to the rich, he points out, over-simplifying to illustrate deeply entrenched injustice.

His constant pacing back and forth across the stage—natural and inspired, flip and funny and sarcastic—deepens as the show progresses. Delivering one knockout punch after another to the self-esteem of the mostly white audience, he lists abuses suffered by his people. Inexperienced white teachers dining out on “tragedy porn” after their two-year stint on the rez. Mercury in the water, murder by police, a housing shortage, a suicide epidemic. “We’re in a one-hundred-fifty-year toxic relationship,” he declares. “But Creator loves us.”

How does he know this? Because “you’ve tried to kill us so many times.”

“Let’s talk fur,” he suggests, “the economy that this country was founded upon.” The difficult work of tanning a hide was made possible by generations of Indigenous women. “How,” he asks, “has that most divine act of generosity been acknowledged? With over four thousand murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls.”

He follows this with a report on the gravest genocide atrocity: “The bodies of over seven thousand residential school children have turned up in unmarked graves across the country.”

These staggering statistics, only recently brought to light hang over us as the show continues.

Cardinal’s interrogation of residential schools run by the Catholic Church is lethal: How were the burial sites chosen? Was there evidence of Catholic ritual? Who actually buried these kids? How did they die? Starvation? Freezing? Sexual assault? Cardinal admits he didn’t attend residential school because “my generation was the first to have parents as parents.” The schools were camps, he declares. Not concentration camps “because the showers sprayed water. . . [they were] rape camps. Kids were sent to have their culture raped from them.”

Cardinal now opens the red curtain to show boxes and reams of paper representing the ongoing inquiry into these assaults on women and children.

He shoots a pointed question at us. “You think it was a different time? No, it was only three weeks ago. Where’s our Nuremburg?” he demands, calling out by name “the Catholic pedophile cult” behind it all. “The Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate who ran so many of these rape camps. . . are still skulking around developing nations like Kenya and Rwanda.”

He tells us finally he has tried to keep his real anger out of the room, “do my little Indian dance and. . . hope they like me.” He ends with the story of two women in his own family, Nita and Carly, in-house disciplinarians who roll by cousin Tiffany’s place and find her small daughter cooking over a hot stove while the mother—blasted on drugs—makes out with her boyfriend in the next room. Nita and Carley administer physical justice, he tells us, mimed with great glee by Cardinal whose conclusion is: “That’s what I call a community-led safety solution.”

Cardinal leaves us with a strong idea of family. That tough love. “We’re all related,” he says. Let’s act that way.”

This powerful one-man performance exemplifies what theatre can do best when it cuts with its most basic tool: words to change hearts and minds. 


*Patricia Keeney is an award-winning Canadian literary and theatre critic as well as a widely published and translated poet and novelist. Her most recent books are the novel One Man Dancing (Inanna) based on the history of Uganda’s legendary Abafumi theatre company and a collection of poetry and contemporary dialogues called Orpheus in Our World (NeoPoiesis) based on the earliest Greek hymns. Available through Amazon and other independent booksellers. Keeney is a longtime professor of Literature, Humanities and Creative Writing at Toronto’s York University. Website: wapitiwords.ca.

Copyright © 2023 Patricia Keeney
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